Northeast Arnhem Land is a place like no other. While words cannot truly do it justice or bring to life the magic of a country and peoples so deeply connected, I was fortunate to spend some time there in October 2020, working at the world renowned Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre. It is not my first time in this part of the world – I first came as a one-year old child with my parents and my four-year old brother to visit friends and families, and I have been returning ever since. I am as grateful as ever to have again been privy to this astounding place, so I will try to share a glimpse into the magic.
Words and Imagery by Nina Fitzgerald
Nestled into the eastern coast of the Gove Peninsula, at the top right-hand corner of the Northern Territory, lies the Yolŋu community of Yirrkala. It is roughly 650kms due east of Darwin by plane, or access is a 1050km journey, of which 600kms is gravel and requires a high clearance 4WD, on the iconic Central Arnhem Highway through vast untouched wilderness.
The beaches in Yirrkala are squeaky white sand, the ocean glistens an iridescent blue, and a sea breeze flows through tall palm trees. But even this gives little insight to the depth of the place. At the centre of the community lies The Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre. Buku is the community owned and operated Art Centre that services Northeast Arnhem Land, which includes Yirrkala and approximately twenty-five homeland centres in the 200km radius. It is the beating heart of the community.
A creative space.
A meeting place.
A bustling hub of activity at all times of the day, every day.
And above all a place of cultural preservation.
Buku has incredibly strong foundations, governed by the strong Yolŋu people it represents. Artistic expression is not prescribed by Buku, but instead honoured in any form it may take as the sacred representation of Yolŋu identity. Or sometimes just simply as art. Creating art for the sake of art and creativity.
Images | Inside & the surrounds of Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, 2020, photos by Nina Fitzgerald
The Art Centre supports all Yolŋu artists, of all ages, with their cultural and artistic aspirations. Artwork includes the traditional, including ṉuwayak (bark paintings), ḻarrakitj (memorial poles), yiḏaki (didgeridoos made in this region by Yolŋu people), and Gunga Djäma (weaves), to the more contemporary such as screen printing, collagraphy, etchings on metal and film making/multimedia.
Some artists work in the Art Centre itself. The highly renowned senior artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu is driven 60kms each morning from her home at the neighbouring Gunyaŋara community to the Art Centre and driven home again in the afternoon. Incredibly hard working, she spent the days I was there expertly marking both intricate and bold linework onto a series of huge, commissioned panels. Nyapanyapa’s work, and warm energy, is mesmerising. Her cheeky giggle uplifting.
Image | Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu at Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, 2020, photo by Nina Fitzgerald
Mulkun Wirrpanda, another senior and highly valued artist, spent her days sitting crossed legged in the open-air courtyard painting her strikingly detailed Larrakitj. She utilises a spectacular selection of Marwat, the delicate hair brushes made using human hair, cotton thread and a carved wooden handle, alongside yellow, orange, and white ochres. Throughout the day I would help her carefully rotate her masterpieces as they unfolded around the curved sides of the hollow log.
Images | Mulkun Wirrpanda at Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, 2020, photos by Nina Fitzgerald
Behind the scenes, the workshop space out back is for the heavy lifting. The mostly male team out here work together in the heat preparing, cutting, packaging, repairing. One day it is wrestling the thick bark from huge hollow stringy bark tree trunks in preparation to be painted and the next it is custom building the vessels required to safely freight precious artworks to fine art galleries in Switzerland. Heads down and tools up. The groovy tunes of Yolŋu radio blaring. That divine artwork hanging in your loungeroom contains a truly multi-layered narrative.
Artists source materials from the land around them. One day, for example, we loaded up the troopie with women for a bush trip to collect Gunga (pandanus) and natural dyes used for weaving. The spiky pandanus leaves are expertly hacked from the tree into neat bundles, and specific shrubs are dug up by hand for their various coloured roots. The collection process takes at least a half day, and that’s even before the dying and drying begins.
Images | Above: Doŋga Maymuru and DJ Marika stripping a ḻarrakitj (memorial pole). Below: Garrangarr Ŋurruwuthun digging roots for dyeing Pandanus, Northeast Arnhem Land, 2020, photos by Nina Fitzgerald.
Further afield are the many more artists who work from their traditional homelands and bring completed artworks into the Art Centre. In supporting artists to work from home, Buku is enabling people to maintain a connection to country and sacred Yolŋu law, whilst earning an income. Again, cultural preservation is at the centre of the Art Centres affairs.
Enter the Mulka Centre.
The Mulka is a production house, recording studio, digital learning centre and cultural archive. Under the leadership of community elders the mission of the Mulka is the protection and sustenance of Yolŋu cultural knowledge. Through the repatriation of audio-visual cultural resources, the Mulka Project houses a growing, pulsing archive of Yolŋu knowledge, ceremony, and cultural history. Hours and hours of footage and recordings, along with countless collections of imagery, make up this exceptional cultural repository, which is ensuring the law, song and dance of elders past is continually contributing to those who are emerging. It is one of the finest examples of intergenerational learning, the cycling of ancient knowledge, as relevant today as it was in the past.
Images | Yirrkala, 2020, photos by Nina Fitzgerald
Working in an Art Centre, and living in a remote community more broadly, epitomises the term ‘expect the unexpected’.
Of course, being so far from any large, well-resourced cities is not without its challenges. Access and timeframes can be an issue. Healthcare is limited. Power outages are frequent. Service cuts may take days to be restored. Mail may take weeks longer than expected. A broken down or bogged car on a remote highway could result in a trip many hours or days longer than expected.
However, these challenges are met with flexibility, resourcefulness, resilience and patience. Buku supports the Yolŋu to continually overcome difficulties. It is the sturdy framework that ensures Yolŋu people can practice and preserve their culture on their own terms, as they have done for more than 60,000 years and as they will continue to do for generations to come.